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As technical advances are made in audio, it seems that everything just gets smaller. You can get 16 gigabytes of storage with the sixth-generation iPod Nano, which is about the size of a Nabisco cracker -- and almost as thin. Blu-ray Disc players have gotten smaller, certainly in the height department. The one thing that’s been difficult to miniaturize is speakers. The speakers in laptop computers and iPods might be good enough for announcements and news, but they’re totally inadequate for music.
So I was intrigued when I saw Logitech’s S135i iPod dock and speakers on sale at Walmart for $34.95 USD. (It lists for $49.99.) Normally I’d ignore anything that small and priced that low, but I’d had a very good experience some months before with Logitech’s S715i rechargeable speaker and iPod dock, and figured that if anyone could make a miniature speaker that sounded respectable, it might be Logitech.
My quest for the perfect Bluetooth sports headphones continues, with this installment focusing on the Rocketfish RF-MAB2. The headphones provided many hours of solid use, but they still came up lacking in a few details.
In the package
The RF-MAB2 headphones come in a box meant to hang on display hooks in a store, with a large plastic window to show them off. Aside from the headphones, the package includes an AC power adapter, a removable USB charging cable, a user guide, and a quick setup guide. Also included but not listed was the pleasant surprise of an extra set of foam earcup cushions.
The headphone set has a one-piece plastic frame that expands when you place it on your head. The frame wraps around the back of your neck instead of over the top of your head, and it’s a design that I greatly prefer. The frame will not fold up, making the search for a case (which isn’t included) difficult but not impossible. The earcups are a rather stylish triangular shape with rounded corners. On the face of the left earcup are the play/pause button and an on/off power switch that doubles as a talk button for your phone. The other controls, which are grouped around the edge of the left cup, include rocker switches for volume and skipping tracks backward and forward. There’s also a USB port close to the skip rocker for charging the unit. On the earcup exterior is an attractive LED display in the shape of the Rocketfish logo that conveys the headphones’ status, and the delivery area on the inside of the headphones is covered with light foam.
The Rocketfish RF-MAB2 has five different built-in EQs that you can engage by tapping the power button twice when the unit is on and in use. Rocketfish calls this “3D Sound,” and the settings include Normal, with no alterations; Xomei, which reduces distracting sounds, making the phones sort of noise-canceling; Live, which Rocketfish claims represents a live performance; Wide, which provides a fake panoramic effect; and Mex, which extends the width of the image while pumping up the bass. Out of the box the headphones measure 5.5" high and 4" from cup to cup when not on the head. The earcups are 1.75" triangles that are .75" wide. The weight is a very light 1.8 ounces.
My Apple iPod Touch is pretty hardy. I keep it in a rubberized case, and it has survived being dropped and other accidental abuses. But this is my second Touch -- the first succumbed to any iThing’s greatest enemy: water. It sounds silly now, but when I was in the men’s room of a coffeehouse I frequent, I carefully placed Touch No.1 on a ledge (I’d never leave it at a table for fear of theft), somehow moved abruptly, and swept it right into the commode. I immediately retrieved it, but even after I’d tried a few of the resurrection ploys found on YouTube, it wouldn’t come back to life. I’d killed it.
That accident was due to my own negligence, of course. I’ve never taken Touch No.2 into a bathroom, including my own at home. If I’m caught in the rain, I keep it close to my heart, where it stands a good chance of staying dry. But I want music everywhere I go -- what about situations where water can be expected: the shower, camping, fishing, whitewater rafting, the beach?
Enter the Eco Extreme powered speaker case ($49.99 USD). Its manufacturer, Grace Digital, claims that it’s waterproof, shockproof, and "floatable" (see below). Amazing claims. I wondered if the Eco Extreme could possibly live up to them.
One way to have music everywhere you go is with a laptop computer. The only problem is that laptops’ tiny speakers are embarrassingly inadequate for listening to music. This is fine in a coffeehouse or café, where most people use headphones of some sort to respect the privacy of others, but it’s not fine if you’re on a picnic and there are no other laptops around. Or perhaps you’re stuck in a motel room overnight and just can’t watch another TV show. In such situations, you need speakers.
But decent-size rechargeable speakers can be too heavy and cumbersome to be easily portable, and they must be plugged into an AC outlet and charged. UltraLink’s new UFi UCube speakers ($149.95 USD per pair) provide a good solution: They plug into and play through a USB connection -- no AC outlet needed! The host computer will provide the necessary power. The UCubes are small, weigh very little, and easily fit into an overnight bag or medium-size camera bag.
They are also just so darned cute and stylish. Fastened to the included stands, they stared up at me like Pixar’s Luxo Jr. I almost expected them to speak on their own.
Last month I kicked off this series devoted to personal stereo and music on the go with a review of the Sony DR-BT21G Bluetooth wireless headphones. These headphones use earcups with miniature fabric-covered speakers that play into the ear without being actually inserted in the ear canal. This month we have Motorola earphones with earbuds that insert into the ear canal. There are advantages to each type of sound delivery. Since they’re less invasive, headphones are likely to be more comfortable, though that’s not always the case. Earphones, properly seated and sealed, can block out noise in the wearer’s surroundings, allowing music to be predominant over extraneous sounds. Earphones also call less attention to themselves in a fashion sense, should that be of any concern. I’ve found that headphones can be quite a bit warmer than earphones over a long period of time, which is why I have lately been leaning toward the latter. Whichever type you choose, I must emphasize my conclusions from last month: Bluetooth and wireless are the only way to go for those pursuing sports or other vigorous activities who want to take music with them. It’s appalling that so few manufacturers have realized this, so sets like the Motorola are very welcome.
The Motorola S10-HD earphones ($79.95 USD) come attractively packaged in a compact plastic box 5.25" by 5" by 2.25" high. The earphones themselves are easy to see through the clear plastic top, while accessories are out of sight under the white plastic bottom. These accessories are a cord and transformer for charging the earphones, an instruction booklet, and four different-sized sets of ear cushions. The instruction book is unusual in that it’s only 2.5" by 3" and quite thick, as it’s presented in English, Spanish, and French, with large sections of legal facts and warnings in all three languages.
Unboxed, the ‘phones are 5" by 5.5" by 1.75" and weigh a scant 1.6 ounces. The unusual one-piece design is made of some sort of memory plastic and has been mixed with a substance more like rubber. There’s a status light and a power/pairing button in the neck band; the other controls are placed on the arms in the inch above the actual earbud. Volume up and down and phone buttons are on the left arm, and the play/pause and skip forward/skip back controls are on the right. The neckband also contains a light that indicates the current function of the earphones, and pulling aside a small flap will reveal a USB port for charging.
At the gym the other night, I counted the number of people using headsets. About two-thirds of exercisers were using some form of iPod or other portable media player, and, of course, earbuds, headsets, headphones, or stereo back 'phones. The delivery of sound to the ears of the sports-inclined is a huge business, and the proliferation of so many different types of devices to deliver sound directly to the ear canals indicates that the purchase of a headset is a very personal transaction.
I've tried a baker's dozen of wired headsets in the past four years -- and, now that I've discovered Bluetooth, at least a half-dozen models from them. I'm not alone in my inability to wear earbuds. I have to have a headphone or headset that's connected to a frame -- for me, a headband that goes behind rather than over the top of the head. In this article, I don't discuss headphones for home use, where an over-the-head band might be acceptable. Though some people do wear them for sports and exercise, they're not for me, being too hot and too much in the way.
I've concluded that, for the gym, wireless Bluetooth is the only way -- that way, I can concentrate on my biceps curls or treadmill time without getting tangled up in wires. I believe that, once you've experienced the freedom of wireless Bluetooth headphones for exercise and running, you'll be hard-pressed to go back to wired units. That said, even Bluetooth is not quite ready for prime time. This Sony pairing of headphones and transmitter, then, came as a relatively good way to enter the realm of Bluetooth without spending too much, while eagerly awaiting a set of headphones, from Sony or elsewhere, that will eliminate some of the current problems with Bluetooth.